A Focus On: Cycling In The French Alps
There are few places which compare to the French Alps when it comes to the mystique, challenge and pure joy of riding a bicycle. The Tour de France has ensured the Alps are embedded in cycling folklore, thanks to the pain, suffering and glory dished out by legendary climbs including the Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier, Col de la Madeleine and the most famous of them all, Alpe d’Huez. Taking on the challenge of riding the very same climbs the pros ride is a unique challenge, and entices cyclists to visit every year.
The best places to stay are also fairly well known. Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, Morzine, Annecy, Briançon, Barcelonnette and Alpe d’Huez are probably the most popular locations, but it’s not just where you stay in the Alps that’s important – timing is crucial too, as it is when visiting any mountainous region.
The Alps, for half the year, they’re a hotbed for ski and winter sports action. Conditions are certainly not conducive for cycling and most of the major climbs are covered by snow and ice. The key months to visit are in the summer, from May through to September, though those climbs above 2,000m, including the Col du Galibier at 2,646m, don’t usually open until early-to-mid June, depending on winter snowfall. You expect the best guarantee of good weather in the peak summer months of June, July and August, when temperatures regularly hit 30 degrees in the valley.
But be prepared – even if it’s scorching hot at the foot of a climb, it can be a very different picture at the summit, and conditions can change quickly and dramatically at any time of year the Alps. Of course, the Tour de France passes through the Alps each year in July, making this the most popular time to visit the region if you want the full-bore experience. However, if you’re keen to avoid the crowds that the race brings, then visiting a couple of weeks before or after the race has been through is advisable. September is also an excellent time to visit if you want to avoid the crowds.
Riding in the French Alps is both a beautiful and challenging experience, but like all adventures high above sea level, you need to be prepared for whatever the mountains can thrown at you. Firstly, you need to consider the terrain. This means making sure that your bike is setup to deal with prolonged climbs – unlike almost anything we have here in the UK – so you’re not left at the side of the road, defeated.
All year round, the weather in the Alps can change very quickly, so it’s important to be ready for this. Especially in early and late summer, within the space of a week you can experience temperatures of up to 40 degrees on the road with bright sunshine, or barely reach double digits with heavy rain, and even hail and snow at the highest passes. This means it’s advisable, along with taking your summer kit, to also pack arm and leg warmers, a waterproof jacket, a gilet, long-fingered gloves and shoe covers. Remember, the temperature can also drop significantly as you gain elevation, and you need to descend these mountains as well as climb them, so having packable kit you can take with you on the bike, to pull on and off as required, is also recommended.